Watching Anime: Sub vs. Dub — Which Is Better? The Eternal Question that May Never Be Answered!

Welcome back, all! As you can see, I’ve decided it’s time for me to get around to writing about one of the topics I teased in my Anime & Manga 101 post. Please excuse the absurdly long title reminiscent of anime episode titles…I’m trying to be funny. And it worked, obviously! I’M HILARIOUS!

Anyway! Moving on. It’s time for the sub vs. dub debate!

Image Credit: WMTanime
Image Credit: WMTanime

As we mentioned in our New Year’s post, Peder and I have set ourselves the resolution to watch more anime this year. We’re off to a good start with Soul Eater, an anime set in Death City, where kids train to become weapons masters and harvest souls that have lost their humanity and have turned into monsters. The weapons they use are different than your run-of-the-mill swords or scythes, though — they just so happen to be humans who have the ability to turn into weapons. So far it’s a great premise, and has the perfect blend of hilarity and depth that all the best animes do.

We started the series off by watching a couple of the subtitled episodes, and then learned that voice actor Laura Bailey voices Maka, the main character. We’ve both enjoyed seeing Bailey on the Geek & Sundry show Critical Role, and wanted to hear some of her voice work, so we watched the English-dub version of the next episode And it was undoubtedly good, but as I’ve noticed when I’ve watched other dubbed anime, there was something about the English version that just…didn’t quite seem right.

So what’s the deal? What makes the original so great, even if it’s in a language we don’t understand? What’s wrong with dubs, anyway? Well, I have a few theories.

In dubbed anime, the original inflection (and therefore, emotion) is lost. As I mentioned in Anime & Manga 101, even those of us who don’t speak a word of Japanese tend to like subbed anime better than dubbed.

This is because, even if we don’t understand the words the characters are saying, we can hear the emotion in their voices and reactions, and that inflection tells us just as much about what’s happening in an episode as the words do. When we watch a dub, we can instinctively tell that something’s missing, and even when the voice actors in the dub are great, everything feels a little bit lifeless and flat.

Subbed anime tends to be better at explaining things that were lost in translation. As with any translated work, there will always be jokes that work in one language and not another because the wordplay doesn’t translate. And in anime, there are always appearances of common Japanese idioms that don’t make any sense to English speakers.

Translators are pretty good at finding workarounds, but no matter what, there will be some pieces that don’t quite fit. In dubbed versions, they’ll sometimes add in translator’s notes about these pieces, but that can serve to pull you out of the story a bit, whereas when you’re already watching the subbed version, they just blend right in with the rest of the subtitles. And sometimes the subbed versions contain more information than the dubs do, because the dubs might just cut the unworkable bit out altogether and replace it with something else, rather than try to explain it. Thus, it’s kind of a pain, as well as occasionally confusing, to miss out on these interesting little asides while watching the dubbed version. Of course, you’ll always run the risk of having to decipher badly translated subs, but…that’s probably worth a whole other post.

We tend to prefer the thing we experience first. Just as I prefer the 2005 version of Pride & Prejudice to the infinitely better-loved BBC version (yes, yes, I know…put down your pitchforks) because it was my introduction to that story, I prefer the sub of Soul Eater to the dub, because that’s what I started out watching. This has little to do with the actual merits of each version, and more to do with the fact that we’re all creatures of habit; we tend to like the thing we formed memories of first, whether or not it’s objectively better than another version of the same thing. And for anime-watchers, that tends to be the original Japanese version, especially for the more hardcore among us who watch the subbed version long before voice actors for the dubbed version have even been casted.

These are some of the reasons why subs tend to win out in the subs vs. dubs debate, but there are certainly others, as well as plenty of arguments for the other side. What differences have you noticed between the two versions, and why do you prefer one over the other? Do you prefer different versions for different situations? Or is there a version you choose no matter what? Tell us in the comments!


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